The latest installment in the Star Wars franchise, The Force Awakens, has won every measuring contest in Hollywood, from biggest opening weekend to fastest movie to reach $1 billion in ticket sales.
A few days ago, it passed Avatar‘s 2009 record and became the highest grossing U.S. domestic movie ever. It has surpassed $1.5 billion globally, with no signs of slowing down as it opens in China on Saturday.
Though George Lucas sold his rights to the franchise for the handsome sum of $4 billion, there can be no doubt it was also “the deal of the century” for Disney (dis), whose stock has continued to rise on the success of the new film and prospect of sequels.
Yet despite the undeniable appeal of Star Wars, there are always the haters; we all know people who turn up their urbane noses up at any whiff of popcorn, intelligentsia who forget that today’s so-called classics were yesterday’s pop culture. After all, Shakespeare wrote his plays for the groundlings — the common men and women standing in the mud of the Globe Theatre — not for the royals who happened to be in attendance. But the next time you walk into a store and see a Darth Vader toaster for sale or an R2D2 shower head and think this has all gone too far, remember this: the power of the force comes from the timeless power of myth.
The new film, The Force Awakens, was a guaranteed moneymaker even before opening weekend, in part because of how George Lucas structured the Star Wars universe from the beginning. Lucas built his space opus around a hero’s journey, the same narrative structure behind The Odyssey, the legend of King Arthur, the story of Moses, The Old Man And The Sea, To Kill A Mockingbird, Beowulf, virtually all of Shakespeare’s plays, Lord of the Rings and every timeless story ever written — including more contemporary crowd-pleasers like Batman, Shrek and Happy Gilmore. (No kidding.)
This archetype for adventure is described in Joseph’s Campbell’s seminal work The Hero With A Thousand Faces, which was a huge influence on George Lucas when he was writing the final draft of the original Star Wars movie in 1975.
This also explains the lasting cultural influence of Greek mythology on contemporary art, architecture and bestsellers like Harry Potter, as well as the box office success of the Marvel Comics Universe, a rival to the Star Wars franchise with a collection of heroes and villains worthy of Perseus, Medusa and Zeus.
As for those pretentious friends who claim to only attend Kabuki theatre performances when ballet season is over, you can assure them this theory applies to those art forms as well, but for those of us at the cinema eating Twizzlers, the best way to understand the hero’s journey is to watch hand puppets explain it on Youtube:
The basic idea is that timeless stories create feelings of empathy, turning the protagonist into a populist hero we can all relate to — making the hero’s quest our own. That’s why the hero always encounters obstacles and sudden setbacks along the way — we may not be fighting a gorgon anytime soon, but our morning commute is bound to include some heroic challenges.
Lucas was also heavily influenced by another adherent of the hero’s journey, legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, whose work inspired an entire generation of directors including Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola. Kurosawa’s classic The Hidden Fortress even features two hapless peasants who were the original inspiration for C3PO and R2D2. Kurosawa is also why the code of the Jedi knights and their manner of dress mimic samurai culture.
The Force Awakens was directed by J.J. Abrams, who ingeniously resurrected the Star Trek franchise a few years ago. He teamed with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, the writer behind The Empire Strikes Back and Indiana Jones, to recreate the classic story arc of the original movie (A New Hope) in which we first met Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Without giving away any spoilers, it’s fair to say the story of Rey, the character brilliantly portrayed by actress Daisy Ridley in the new film, is directly analogous to the hero’s journey that Luke began almost forty years ago.
That is the timeless power of myth.
So while I’ll defend my artsy friends’ right to dress their kids in Kabuki masks next Halloween, they shouldn’t be surprised when the neighbors’ kid dressed as Yoda brings home a lot more candy.
Tim Maleeny is a bestselling author and Chief Strategy Officer for Havas Worldwide.